COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Less than a half-hour after one of the lowest moments in recent Maryland football history, a 48-27 home loss to MAC program Bowling Green, Perry Hills sat stone-faced at the front of the Gossett Team House auditorium, presumably reflecting on the blindside hit he and his team just absorbed. As his quarterback duties require, Hills fulfilled postgame obligations, succinctly answering questions until Maryland’s media relations man let him off the hook.
After vowing to improve after a less-than-inspiring Week 1 performance against FCS-foe Richmond, the junior responded with a dud against BGSU, completing just 15-of-30 attempts for 168 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. A day later, then-head coach Randy Edsall relieved Hills of his starting role, less than three weeks after handing the former third-stringer the reins.
Many in and around College Park figured Hills had taken his last snap -- at least, as far as his Maryland career was concerned.
“I definitely was frustrated in the positions I was,” Hills said Oct. 21. “But I told myself, ‘Whenever I get an opportunity again, I’m going to take advantage of it. I’m going to do whatever I can to help this offense.’ You always have to think positively. I just told myself, ‘Whenever [another opportunity] comes, just be ready.’”
Hills received such an opportunity in the wake of former-No. 2 signal caller Caleb Rowe’s struggles. The big-armed Rowe could certainly make all the throws, but more often than not he completed them to the guys in green (South Florida, three interceptions), blue (Michigan, three more interceptions,) and yellow (West Virginia, four interceptions).
Following the 28-0 Michigan debacle, in which Rowe completed just 29.6 percent of his throws, the Terps were forced to turn back to Hills. At the very least, the feeling went, Hills wouldn’t rain picks in Byrd Stadium like the basketball team rained threes in Xfinity Center.
The Pittsburgh, Pa., native did end up throwing two desperation fourth-quarter interceptions as Maryland tried to dig out of a deep hole at Ohio State, but Hills also rushed for 170 yards and two scores. His 75-yard dash to daylight drew the Terps to within a touchdown of the No. 1 team in the nation.
“It was good to see Perry out there doing his thing,” linebacker Jermaine Carter said. “He might have messed up a couple times, but it definitely helped us out more, [the defense] staying off the field, things like that.”
Interim head coach Mike Locksley, who ascended to lead man in the wake of Edsall’s firing a day after the 49-28 OSU loss, threw his full support behind Hills as well. Sure, some of the quarterback’s throws resembled felled quails rather than missiles, but his ability to create yards with his feet opened up the offense. For the first time all year, the Terps were consistently moving the ball and penetrating enemy territory.
“Because of the skill set that Perry brings to the program and to the offense, we have to build around that,” Locksley said. “What you saw earlier in the year was based off of the type of quarterback was playing with Caleb Rowe, more of a pro-style, drop-back guy. Once we made the decision to go with Perry, Perry’s skill set enabled us to do some things offensively that we displayed [against OSU] and we’re hoping to be able to build on.”
Some of those “things” Locksley referred to were really just one thing: Running the football. Hills isn’t expected to anchor the offense with his arm; he’s already proven that’s not in his arsenal. So, for the foreseeable future, it’s, “Run, Forrest, run.”
“We went into Ohio State knowing they had a really good defensive line, and to kind of equalize that we decided to run the quarterback more, read guys and make them play a different defense,” Hills said. “We did a great job of that, using my legs and abilities to get first downs and move the ball.
“I definitely felt more comfortable being able to take off, run the ball and just get yards any way I can. You know, that’s going to be our point of emphasis – moving the ball and scoring points.”
Naturally, a potent rushing attack, regardless of who carries the rock, will result in larger passing windows downfield. Wide enough that Hills might even be able to take advantage.
“[Defenses] are going to start spying me more,” Hills said. “And that’s going to open up the passing game, instead of [the defense] just dropping to areas and looking to the wide receivers.”
Just don’t expect Hills to morph into Johnny Unitas overnight. Yes, Hills may hail from the same hometown as Johnny U, but the former Central Catholic (Pittsburgh) star has always been a runner at heart.
Even in his youth-league days, Hills was more apt to pull the ball down than sit back and scan the defense. And when he did scramble, Hills, like any true Steel-town bred Pittsburgher, refused to wimp out by tiptoeing to the sidelines.
Which is why Hills didn’t think twice about plowing through the heart of Ohio State’s defense Oct. 10.
“As a quarterback, most guys are taught to slide or get out of bounds, but even growing up I never did that,” Hills said. “I’ve always fought for that extra yard, get the first down. I’m going to lower my shoulder and do what I have to do.”
The “tough guy” card will earn him major locker-room respect points, but now the tape’s out on Hills. The Buckeyes weren’t prepared for a running quarterback, but the stout Nittany Lions almost certainly will be.
Penn State is bringing its top-20 defense to Baltimore, Md., Oct. 24 for a 3:30 p.m. bout in M&T Bank Stadium. Expect PSU to have a boulder-sized chip on its shoulder after Maryland went into Happy Valley last year and emerged victorious.
It’s safe to say the Nittany Lions need no extra motivation heading into this budding “rivalry” match. But neither does Hills.
Although he grew up in the shadows of Pitt and mainly watched the Panthers during college football Saturdays, Hills still would have liked a Penn State-look coming out of high school. Other than a few cursory interest letters, however, the Central Catholic product heard nary a word from State College, Pa.
“[The PSU game] is definitely personal, because I’m from the Pennsylvania area,” Hills said. “To go and beat a team that overlooked you … it definitely is a big game for me. … Every game is huge, but being a Pennsylvania guy, [the PSU game is] definitely one I want to win.”
Unfortunately for Hills and Co. the Terps might not have a full-blown, home-crowd backing as plenty of Penn State fans will be trekking down I-83 to Baltimore. Not that the Terps’ starting signal caller is all that concerned. He’s too wrapped up in mastering his craft and solving the Nittany Lions’ defense than agonizing over a bipartisan crowd in what’s supposed to be a home game.
“The stadium could be empty,” Hills said. “It doesn’t matter if there’s one fan or 70,000 [Penn State] fans. We’re going out to play Penn State.”
Indeed, there’s plenty on Hills’ plate already. But at least he shouldn’t have to worry about job security.
Even if he has a miscue or two, Hills figures to be entrenched moving forward. His gumption has won over his teammates and, more importantly, the man who makes the decisions: Locksley.
“It’s a weight off your shoulders,” Hills said of Locksley’s public backing. “But it doesn’t really matter, because at the end of the day you have to go out there and perform. That’s what it comes down to, executing. I’m not going to sit back and be complacent. I still want to be the best leader for this team.”